Apostasy and Human Rights
21 Dec, 2006
First Published in International Humanist and Ethical Union
The very notion of apostasy has vanished from the West
where one would talk of being a lapsed Catholic or non-practising
Christian rather than an apostate. There are certainly no penal
sanctions for converting from Christianity to any other religion. In
Islamic countries, on the other hand, the issue is far from dead.
It is clear quite clear that under Islamic Law an
apostate must be put to death. There is no dispute on this ruling
among classical Muslim or modern scholars, and we shall return to
the textual evidence for it. Some modern scholars have argued that
in the Koran the apostate is threatened with punishment only in the
next world, as for example at XVI.106, "Whoso disbelieveth in Allah
after his belief -save him who is forced thereto and whose heart is
still content with the Faith but whoso findeth ease in disbelief: On
them is wrath from Allah. Theirs will be an awful doom." Similarly
in III.90-91, "Lo! those who disbelieve after their (profession of)
belief, and afterward grow violent in disbelief, their repentance
will not be accepted. And such are those who are astray. Lo! those
who disbelieve, and die in disbelief, the (whole) earth full of gold
would not be accepted from such an one if it were offered as a
ransom (for his soul). Theirs will be a painful doom and they will
have no helpers."
However, Sura II.217 is interpreted by no less an authority than al-Shafi'i (died 820 C.E.), the founder of one of the four orthodox schools of law of Sunni Islam to mean that the death penalty should be prescribed for apostates. Sura II.217 reads: "... But whoever of you recants and dies an unbeliever , his works shall come to nothing in this world and the next, and they are the companions of the fire for ever." Al-Thalabi and al -Khazan concur. Al-Razi in his commentary on II:217 says the apostate should be killed .1
Similarly, IV. 89: "They would have you disbelieve as they themselves have disbelieved, so that you may be all like alike. Do not befriend them until they have fled their homes for the cause of God. If they desert you seize them and put them to death wherever you find them. Look for neither friends nor helpers among them..." Baydawi (died c. 1315-16), in his celebrated commentary on the Koran, interprets this passage to mean: "Whosover turns back from his belief ( irtada ), openly or secretly, take him and kill him wheresoever ye find him, like any other infidel. Separate yourself from him altogether .Do not accept intercession in his regard".2 Ibn Kathir in his commentary on this passage quoting Al Suddi (died 745) says that since the unbelievers had manifested their unbelief they should be killed.3
Abul Ala Mawdudi [1903-1979 ], the founder of the Jamat-i Islami, is perhaps the most influential Muslim thinker of the 20th century, being responsible for the Islamic resurgence in modern times. He called for a return to the Koran and a purified sunna as a way to revive and revitalise Islam. In his book on apostasy in Islam, Mawdudi argued that even the Koran prescribes the death penalty for all apostates. He points to sura IX for evidence:
"But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then are they your brethren in religion. We detail our revelations for a people who have knowledge. And if they break their pledges after their treaty (hath been made with you) and assail your religion, then fight the heads of disbelief Lo! they have no binding oaths in order that they may desist."(IX: 11,12)4
Here we find many traditions demanding the death penalty for apostasy. According to Ibn Abbas the Prophet said, "Kill him who changes his religion," or "behead him."5 The only argument was as to the nature of the death penalty. Bukhari recounts this gruesome tradition:
"Narrated Anas:Some people from the tribe of Ukl came to the Prophet and embraced Islam. The climate of Medina did not suit them, so the Prophet ordered them to go to the (herd of milch ) camels of charity to drink their milk and urine (as a medicine). They did so, and after they had recovered from their ailment they turned renegades (reverted from Islam, irtada) and killed the shepherd of the camels and took the camels away .The Prophet sent (some people) in their pursuit and so they were caught and brought, and the Prophet ordered that their hands and legs should be cut off and that their eyes should be branded with heated pieces of iron , and that their cut hands and legs should not be cauterised, till they die."6
Abu Dawud has collected the following saying of the Prophet:
"'Ikrimah said: Ali burned some people who retreated from Islam. When Ibn Abbas was informed of it he said, 'If it had been I, I would not have them burned, for the apostle of Allah said: 'Do not inflict Allah's punishment on anyone.' But would have killed them on account of the statement of the Apostle of Allah, 'Kill those who change their religion.' "7
In other words, kill the apostates (with the sword) but certainly not by burning them, that is Allah's way of punishing transgressors in the next world. According to a tradition of Aisha's, apostates are to be slain, crucified or banished.8 Should the apostate be given a chance to repent? Traditions differ enormously. In one tradition, Muadh Jabal refused to sit down until an apostate brought before him had been killed "in accordance with the decision of God and of His Apostle."9
Under Muslim law, the male apostate must be put to death, as long as he is an adult, and in full possession of his faculties. If a pubescent boy apostatises, he is imprisoned until he comes of age, when if he persists in rejecting Islam he must be put to death. Drunkards and the mentally disturbed are not held responsible for their apostasy. If a person has acted under compulsion he is not considered an apostate, his wife is not divorced and his lands are not forfeited. According to Hanafis and Shia, a woman is imprisoned until she repents and adopts Islam once more, but according to the influential Ibn Hanbal, and the Malikis and Shafiites, she is also put to death. In general, execution must be by the sword, though there are examples of apostates tortured to death, or strangled, burnt, drowned, impaled or flayed. The caliph Umar used to tie them to a post and had lances thrust into their hearts, and the Sultan Baybars II (1308-09) made torture legal.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR,1948] states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance". 10
The clause guaranteeing the freedom to change one's religion was added at the request of the delegate from Lebanon, Charles Malik, who was a Christian.11 Lebanon had accepted many people fleeing persecution for their beliefs, in particular for having changed their religion. Lebanon especially objected to the Islamic law concerning apostasy. Many Muslim countries, however, objected strongly to the clause regarding the right to change one's religion. The delegate from Egypt, for instance, said that "very often a man changes religion or his convictions under external influences with goals which are not recommendable such as divorce." He added that he feared in proclaiming the liberty to change one's religion or convictions the Universal Declaration would encourage without wishing it "the machinations of certain missions well- known in the East, which relentlessly pursue their efforts with a view to converting to their faith the populations of the East".12 Significantly, Lebanon was supported by a delegate from Pakistan who belonged to the Ahmadi community which, ironically, was to be thrown out of the Islamic community in the 1970s for being non-Muslim. In the end all Muslim countries except Saudi Arabia adhered to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
During discussions of Article 18 in 1966, Saudi Arabia and Egypt wanted to suppress the clause guaranteeing the freedom to change one's religion. Finally a compromise amendment proposed by Brazil and the Philippines was adopted to placate the Islamic countries. Thus, "the freedom to change his religion or belief" was replaced by "the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice."13 Similarly in 1981, during discussions on the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, Iran, under the new regime reminded everyone that Islam punished apostasy by death. The delegate from Iraq, backed up by Syria, speaking on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference expressed his reserve for any clauses or terms that would contradict the Islamic Sharia, while the delegate from Egypt felt that they had to guard against such a clause being exploited for political ends to interfere in the internal affairs of states.14
The various Islamic human rights schemes or declarations - such as the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (1981) are understandably vague or evasive on the issue of the freedom to change one's religion, since Islam itself clearly forbids apostasy and punishes it with death. As Elisabeth Mayer says, "The lack of support for the principle of freedom of religion in the Islamic human rights schemes is one of the factors that most sharply distinguishes them from the International Bill of Human Rights, which treats freedom of religion as an unqualified right. The [Muslim] authors' unwillingness to repudiate the rule that a person should be executed over a question of religious belief reveals the enormous gap that exists between their mentalities and the modern philosophy of human rights."15 Islamic Human Rights Schemes are clearly not universal since they introduce a specifically Islamic religious criterion into the political sphere, whereas the UDHR of 1948 places human rights in an entirely secular and universalist framework. The Islamic human rights schemes severely restrict and qualify the rights of individuals, particularly women, non-Muslims and those, such as apostates, who do not accept Islamic religious orthodoxy.
As for the constitutions of various Muslim countries, while many do guarantee freedom of belief (Egypt,1971; Syria, 1973; Jordan, 1952) some talk of freedom of conscience (Algeria:1989), and some of freedom of thought and opinion (Mauritania: 1991). Islamic countries with two exceptions do not address the issue of apostasy in their penal codes; the two exceptions are the Sudan, and Mauritania. In the Sudanese Penal Code of 1991, article 126. 2, we read: "Whoever is guilty of apostasy is invited to repent over a period to be determined by the tribunal. If he persists in his apostasy and was not recently converted to Islam, he will be put to death." The Penal Code of Mauritania of 1984, article 306 reads: "...All Muslims guilty of apostasy, either spoken or by overt action will be asked to repent during a period of three days. If he does not repent during this period, he is condemned to death as an apostate, and his belongings confiscated by the State Treasury." This applies equally to women. The Moroccan Penal Code seems only to mention those guilty of trying to subvert the belief of a Muslim, or those who try to convert a Muslim to another religion. The punishment varies between a fine and imprisonment for anything up to three years.16
The absence of any mention of apostasy in some penal codes of Islamic countries of course in no way implies that a Muslim in the country concerned is free to leave his religion. In reality, the lacunae in the penal codes are filled by Islamic Law. Mahmud Muhammad Taha was hanged for apostasy in 1985, even though at the time the Sudanese Penal Code of 1983 did not mention such a crime.17
In some countries, the term apostate is applied to some who were born non-Muslim but whose ancestors had the good sense to convert from Islam. The Baha'is in Iran in recent years have been persecuted for just such a reason. Similarly, in Pakistan the Ahmadiya community were classed as non-Muslims, and are subjected to all sorts of persecution.
There is some evidence that many Muslim women in Islamic countries would convert from Islam to escape their lowly position in Muslim societies, or to avoid the application of an unfavourable law, especially Sharia law governing divorce.18 Muslim theologians are well aware of the temptation of Muslim women to evade the Sharia laws by converting from Islam, and take appropriate measures. For example, in Kuwait in an explanatory memorandum to the text of a law reform says: "Complaints have shown that the Devil makes the route of apostasy attractive to the Muslim woman so that she can break a conjugal tie that does not please her. For this reason, it was decided that apostasy would not lead to the dissolution of the marriage in order to close this dangerous door."19 Several cases are discussed in my book, Leaving Islam Apostates Speak Out (Prometheus Books, 2003):
Charges of apostasy, unbelief , blasphemy and heresy, whether upheld or not, clearly go against several articles in UDHR of 1948 , and the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] of 1966 to which 147 states are signatories.
General comment No 22, adopted by the UN Human Rights Commission at its 48th session (1993) ( HRI/GEN/1/Rev.6 of 22 May 2003 , pp.155-56 ) declares (quote): "Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The term "belief" and "religion" are to be broadly construed".
As with my statement to the 60th Session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights delivered by the President of the IHEU, We urge the Commission to call on all governments to comply with applicable international human rights instruments like the ICCPR and to bring their national legislation into accordance with the instruments to which they were a party , and to forbid fatwas and sermons preaching violence in the name of god against those holding unorthodox opinions or those who have left a religion.
Geneva, 18th April 2005
Ibn Warraq is the author of Why I am not a Muslim (1996), and the editor of The Origins of the Qur'an (1999); The Quest for the Historical Muhammad (2000), What the Qur'an Really Says (2002), Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out (2003)
1. S. Zwemer ,The Law of Apostasy in Islam (New York ,1924 ), pp.34-35. See also al-Razi, al-Tafsir al-Kabir (Cairo ,1308 A.H.), Vol.2,lines 17-20.
2 . Zwemer ,op. cit. pp.33-34.
3. Ibn Kathir, L'Interpretation du Coran , trans.Fawzi Chaaban (Beirut, 1998),Vol.2 , p.128.
4. Abul Ala Mawdudi , The Punishment of the Apostate according to Islamic Law , trans. Syed Silas Husain and Ernest Hahn (1994) , available at www.answering-islam.org .
5. Ibn Maja , Hudud , bab 2 ; al-Nisai , Tahrim al-Dam, bab 14 ; al-Tayalisi , no.2689 ; Malik, Aqdiya tr.15;al-Bukhari , Institabat al-murtadin , bab 2; al-Tirmidhi , Hudud , bab 25 ; Abu Dawud , Hudud ,Bab 1 ; Ibn Hanbal i. 217, 282, 322.
6. Al-Bukhari , Sahih , Trans.Ahmad Hasan (Delhi ,1987 ),Vol.8, pp.519-520.
7. Abu Dawud , Sunan , Trans.Ahmad Hasan , Vol.3 , Kitab al-Hudud , chap.1605, Punishment of an Apostate, Hadith No. 4337 (Delhi 1990), p.1212.
8. al-Nisai , Tahrim al-Dam , bab 11; Qasama , Bab 13 ; Abu Dawud , Hudud , bab 1.
9. Al-Bukhari , Maghazi bab 60 ; Istitabat al-Murtaddin , bab 2 ; Ahkam , bab 12 ; Muslim , Imara , tr. 15 ; Abu Dawud, Hudud , bab 1 ; Ibn Hanba,l, v. 231.
10. Available online at the United Nations Website : www.un.org/rights/50/decla.htm
11. Sami A.Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh , Le Delit d'Apostasie Aujourd'hui et ses Consequences en Droit Arabe et Musulman, Islamochristiana 20 (1994) : 93-116 ; A.E.Mayer , Islam and Human Rights ( Boulder , 1991), p.164.
12. Abu Sahlieh , Le Delit d'Apostasie , p.94
15. A.E.Mayer , Islam and Human Rights , p. 187.
16. Abu Sahlieh , Le Delit d'Apostasie , p. 98.
17. Sami A.Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh , Les Musulmans face aux droits de l'homme (Bachum , 2001) p. 110.
18. A.E.Mayer , op.cit., p. 167
19. A.E.Mayer , op.cit., pp. 167-68.